Yemen

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:26 pm on 20th November 2017.

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Photo of Fabian Hamilton Fabian Hamilton Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow Minister (Defence) 4:26 pm, 20th November 2017

I am standing in today for the shadow Foreign Secretary, who has a child in hospital.

As we discuss the human cost of one seemingly intractable conflict, I am sure that the whole House will join me in commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Cambrai. I was able to visit the tunnels under Arras—the Carrière Wellington—last Thursday afternoon and to salute the service of the Royal Tank Regiment, for whom this day rightly remains sacred.

I thank the Minister for advance sight of his statement. I will not address all the points he made at this stage, given that there may be another opportunity to do so later in today’s proceedings. For the time being, I wish to address the urgent matter of the escalating humanitarian crisis in Yemen, as he has done in his statement. On that point, the Minister has joined a long line of Foreign Office Ministers who have come to this House since 2015 and told us, time after time, that they are doing everything they can to tackle the humanitarian crisis in Yemen and to limit civilian casualties. Yet, time after time, whatever the Government’s good intentions, the humanitarian crisis keeps getting worse and the civilian death toll continues to rise ever higher. We now face a dramatic escalation of that crisis, with millions of lives in even more immediate danger. I am afraid that more good intentions on the part of the Government will simply not cut it this time. Instead, we need urgent action.

We are all familiar with recent developments, as summarised by the Minister. The Saudis have reacted with understandable anger to the Houthis’ firing of a ballistic missile at Riyadh—an act that all Labour Members unequivocally condemn, in the same way in which we have condemned all the thousands of Saudi air strikes against civilian targets inside Yemen. Following the Houthi missile strike, the Saudis strengthened their blockade of all rebel-held areas of Yemen. As a result, what little supplies there were—of food, medicine and other humanitarian goods—have now ground to a halt. Millions of children, who were already facing severe malnutrition, a cholera epidemic and an outbreak of diphtheria, have had their very last lifeline cut off.

Let me quote this weekend’s joint statement by the World Health Organisation, the World Food Programme and UNICEF. They say the tightening of the blockade

“is making an already catastrophic situation far worse.”

They say the supplies the Saudis are blocking

“are essential to staving off disease and starvation. Without them, untold thousands of innocent victims, among them many children, will die.”

They estimate that if nothing is done over the coming months, 150,000 already malnourished children could starve to death. They conclude:

“To deprive this many from the basic means of survival is an unconscionable act and a violation of humanitarian principles and law.”

The Minister has said that he shares those concerns and is urging the Saudis to open up humanitarian access, but at what point will he admit that that strategy is not working? At what point will he warn the Saudis that Britain will withdraw its support if they carry on with this blockade? And at what point do we say that this is no longer a question of diplomatic persuasion but a matter of international law?

International humanitarian law is clear, and Britain’s “Manual of the Law of Armed Conflict” is clear: the starvation of a civilian population cannot be used as a weapon of war. Let me quote specifically from the British manual:

“The…establishment of a blockade is prohibited if…the damage to the civilian population is…
excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage”.

It also states:

“If the civilian population…is inadequately provided with food and other objects essential for its survival, the blockading party must provide for free passage of such…essential supplies”.

So if the Saudis continue to enforce the blockade in its current form and deny humanitarian access, will it be the judgement of the Government that the Saudis are in breach of international humanitarian law? If so, will the Government suspend the sales of British arms that are being used to enforce that blockade?

The truth is that the Government have invested considerable political capital in their relationship with Saudi Arabia. They have championed Crown Prince Salman, the architect of the conflict in Yemen and the man who is calling the shots on the blockade. If that diplomatic strategy has been worth anything, now is the time to prove it. Now is the time for the Government to show that we can have influence and impact on the Saudis and to persuade them that, as a matter of urgency, they should open up the ports to humanitarian supplies and bring relief to the millions of children facing starvation and disease. If the Government cannot achieve that, it is time for them to change their approach.